An All-New – And Special Surprises!

Check back on November 18 for the brand-new, 100% updated,!


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Coming Soon – An ALL NEW!

I’ve got some big, exciting announcements coming in the next few days, along with an entirely new, updated!

I’m taking a brief hiatus from blogging this week, while we finish rebuilding the site, but I promise the delay – and the announcements – will be worth the wait!

In the meantime, I hope you’ll find me Instagram (, Facebook (SusanSpannAuthor) and twitter (@SusanSpann) – where the fun and content are ongoing!

See you all very soon!

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Everyone Loves Jizō

Buddhists recognize many different incarnations of the Buddha – different manifestations, often worshipped and respected as separate deities – that serve different functions and represent different aspects of Buddha’s character.

Among the most popular is Jizō Bosatsu – a bodhisattva sometimes called “the excuse Buddha.”

Okunoin Buddha

Jizō serves many functions, primarily related to easing suffering, delivering people to paradise, and shortening the time that souls must suffer in the Buddhist hells. He is one of the jusanbutsu, the thirteen Buddhas and bodhisattvas who judge the soul after death in Buddhist theology–and in that context, his role is to argue on behalf of the deceased, asking the other judges to show mercy.

Japan is filled with statues of Jizō–you see them everywhere, from temples to roadside shrines, and often sitting alongside hiking trails in the wilderness.  

The Jizō in the photograph below sits near the start of the preserved section of the Tokaidō (a 17th century coastal travel road between Kyoto and Tokyo) in Hakone.

Buddha With Bird (1)

If you look closely, you’ll see the dove approaching the Buddha statue. As I watched, the dove walked up, stood staring at Jizō for a moment, and then walked back the way it came.

Apparently, Jizō really will listen to any and every prayer.

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The Graves of Okunoin

Okunoin – “the temple at the end” is Japan’s largest cemetery. Sacred to the Shingon Buddhist sect (though non-Buddhists can be buried there, as long as they believe in the teachings of Kōbō Daishi), the cemetery has over 250,000 graves and monuments, the oldest of which date to at least the ninth century (if not before).

Zenni Jochi Memorial 1375

The grave monument above dates to 1375, and marks the resting place of a Buddhist nun. According to legend, if you lay your ear to the stone, you can hear the screams of people suffering in hell.

I admit, I did not try. While I’m not superstitious, there are some sounds I have no desire to hear.

Okunoin Tombstone

According to Shingon doctrine, anyone buried at Okunoin (and those who have monuments there, even if their bodies are actually interred elsewhere) will return to life first at the time Miroku (the Buddha of the Future) returns to earth at the end of days.

For that and other reasons, since the cemetery’s founding in the 9th century, many adherents of the Shingon faith (and others) have chosen to be buried on the mountain.

Do you like visiting cemeteries? Do you find them peaceful, or are they places you avoid?

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A True Ghost Story From Japan

All my life, I’ve professed to believing in ghosts … primarily to prevent them feeling the need to actually prove their existence to me.

In other words – I believed by choice so I didn’t have to experience ghosts for real.

That worked pretty well for me until last November, when I went to Japan to research my sixth Hiro Hattori mystery (next year’s TRIAL ON MOUNT KOYA – which is now available for preorder) - and encountered one of Japan’s most famous yūrei (ghosts).

I spent the early days of November 2016 doing research on Mount Kōya, the heart of Shingon (esoteric) Buddhism in Japan.

Okunoin Buddha

The mountain is home to over 100 Shingon temples (many of which host overnight guests) and Okunoin (“the temple at the end”) - Japan’s largest cemetery – which is home to not only the mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi (the priest who brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan from China), but more than 250,000 other graves and monuments to the dead.

I spent five hours at Okunoin on the morning and afternoon of November 4. Although its scale is overwhelming, the cemetery is one of the most beautiful, and most peaceful places I have ever been.

That night, I stayed at Ekoin, a thousand year-old Shingon Buddhist temple.


After dinner (and after dark) a priest from Ekoin offered an English-language tour of Okunoin. I spent a delightful hour listening to him explain the history of the cemetery–and asking research questions, which he answered at length and in depth.

The tour ended on the far end of the cemetery, near Kōbō Daishi’s mausoleum, where the priest released the group to walk back to the temple (through the cemetery) on our own.

Okunoin Trees

I stopped for a while to photograph some statues for my novel. When I finished, I discovered that everyone except for our guide and two other visitors had already disappeared back down the path, most likely to escape the cold.

Okunoin Buddhas

Which left me essentially alone, an hour’s dark walk from the temple. 

The guide was telling the remaining visitors about the statues, and I didn’t want to disturb them, so I started back along the path alone.


I wasn’t scared. I’d seen the cemetery in daylight, and knew it was a peaceful, sacred place.

About halfway through the cemetery, I stopped to snap some photos of monuments lit by the lanterns along the path.

Okunoin - Lantern and Jizo

While taking photos, I heard the click of traditional Japanese wooden sandals–the type many priests on Koya still wear–approaching from behind me. Wanting to be polite, I waited, listening as the geta drew closer. When the priest was right behind me, I turned, bowed, and said good evening . . .

Okunoin Graves (1)

. . . but there was no one there.

The sound of the sandals ceased the instant I turned and bowed. The path was completely empty in both directions, as far as the eye could see – and given that the path is straight at that place, and lit at regular intervals, I could see quite a distance in either direction.

Needless to say, I did what any self-respecting, curious historian would do.

I ran like hell.

I ran until I caught up to a couple strolling along the path ahead of me – far enough that I was completely out of breath, legs burning, and struggling to look like I was merely out for a pleasant jog. Only then did I slow down.

Ekoin At Night

I followed the couple back to Ekoin, returned to my room, and went to bed – but didn’t sleep for quite some time.

After thinking through the experience, reviewing my photos and memories, and considering what I know of Japan, the world, and science, I believe the spirit I met in the graveyard was real, and that it was beto-beto-san, a well-known Japanese ghost.

According to legend (which I now interpret as fact), beto-beto-san is a harmless trickster. The spirit follows people along deserted streets or pathways, making a sound like wooden geta that get closer and closer to you until you panic and run. Even then, beto-beto-san supposedly follows you until you turn and greet him by saying, “After you, beto-beto-san,” at which point the spirit goes away.

Based on my own experience, bowing and saying “Good evening,” will also suffice – because, although I remained in Japan for another two weeks, I didn’t hear or see anything similar again.

Some people don’t believe in ghosts, and that’s okay–I only half believed in them myself until last November.

Okunoin Tombstone

Now, though, I know beto-beto.

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Marking the Way on the Tokaido

This waterfall runs down a mountain and crosses the original path of the old Tokaido near Hakone.

Tokaido Marker

During the Edo period (1603-1868) the Tokaidō was one of five major travel roads, and one of the two most important linking the former capital city of Kyoto with the then-new capital, Edo (now called Tokyo).

The Tokaidō, or “East Sea Road” roughly paralleled the southeastern coast of Honshū (Japan’s largest island). Its 53 stations, or post towns, were (and remain, to an extent) famous subjects of Japanese art and literature.

I hiked a section of the old Tokaidō near Hakone last autumn, and visited again in the summer of 2017, as research for an upcoming Hiro Hattori mystery novel. Although the Tokaidō, as such, did not become famous until shortly after the time when my novels are set, portions of the road did exist, and were used by travelers journeying between Kyoto and Edo (as well as between other towns along the route).

The road remains a difficult walk, but a beautiful one, with sights like this waterfall every few minutes along the way. 

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On the Road…to Bouchercon!

This morning, I’m flying to Los Angeles to pick up my mother, and tomorrow she and I fly to Toronto, Canada for Bouchercon (the World Mystery Convention).

On Friday at 2pm, I’m speaking on a panel about mysteries set in foreign times and places. After that, I’m looking forward to spending a lovely long weekend with my brothers and sisters in crime-fiction – writers and readers!


This will be my mother’s first Bouchercon – and I’m excited to share it with her. She loves a good party, and the world mystery convention is tremendous fun.

My regular Japan posts are on hiatus this week, for Bouchercon, but I’ll still be posting updates from the convention, and regular blogging will resume on Wednesday, October 18!

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A Night at Tonosawa Ichinoyu Shinkan, Hakone

(To read this series on Hakone from the beginning, click here.)

From Tonosawa Station, it’s a beautiful, forested 5-minute walk to Ichinoyu Shinkan, the ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) where I’ve stayed during both of my research trips to Japan.

Path to Tonosawa Station (2)


The paved path winds along the hillside, under a beautiful canopy of trees:

Walk to Ichinoyu

. . . with views of the foliage on the hill across the way.

View near Ichinoyu Shinkan

It’s peaceful and lovely in any season, although the autumn leaves make this a truly spectacular walk.

View en route to hotel

Ichinoyu Shinkan sits against the side of a hill.

Ichinoyu Shinkan

Despite its unassuming exterior, the rooms are a lovely blend of convenience and traditional Japanese style.

Ichinoyu Shinkan 211

The beds are futon-style, but with firm mattresses in place of more traditional futons. (I like both, but people who have trouble with traditional futon may appreciate this detail.) 

The rooms I stay in have  a private onsen (hot spring) tub on the balcony.

Ichinoyu Shinkan Tub


Privacy screens ensure no one can see in, but once you’re in the tub, you can open the upper screen for a view of the mountains.

Shinkan tub view

While the room has  a separate (indoor) toilet, the rooms with private onsen baths do not have showers or other bathtubs. Bathing is entirely Japanese-style – which means you shower outside, on the balcony, using the wooden stool, dipper, shampoo and soap that sit beside the tub.

Bath stool and shampoo

Before entering the tub (or any other time you want to bathe) you take a seat on the stool, dip up water from the tub (warning: it’s as hot as you’d expect volcanic hot-spring baths to be, although there is a cold-water faucet on one side to reduce the temperature if you wish), and use it to wet your body and hair and to rinse yourself off after using the shampoo and soap.

Private bath

Many Americans find this type of bathing strange–and I’ll admit that the first time I had second thoughts about standing outside, naked, on a 19-degree November morning and “showering” with a wooden bucket of water dipped from a steaming tub.

That said, when I tried it, I was hooked immediately. I adore the private hot spring tub, and the traditional bathing process left me feeling clean and invigorated.

Like many ryokan, Ichinoyu Shinkan serves amazing meals in the dining room, and after a bath and a soak in the tub, I headed downstairs for a delicious traditional dinner.

But for that part of the story, you’ll have to wait for Friday !   

Ichinoyu Shinkan (1)

(Note: I recommend taking a taxi from Hakone-Yumoto Station to the ryokan upon your initial arrival. It costs $8, and that’s money well spent to avoid shlepping suitcases uphill along the lovely–but steep in places–walk from Tonosawa Station).

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Tonosawa’s Secret Benten Shrine

As I mentioned in Friday’s post, Tonosawa Station is a tiny stop on the Hakone Tozan Railway between Hakone-Yumoto and Gora. For most people, the station is either a one-minute stop where the train takes on new passengers before continuing its run up the mountain or else a place to disembark and head for one of the nearby ryokan.

However, Tonosawa Station also has a lovely secret–a Shintō shrine called Tonosawa Fukazawa Zeniarai Benten, that sits just off the train tracks on the “uphill” side of Tonosawa Station. In the photo below, the entrance to the shrine is just to the left of the covered bench:

Tonosawa Eki Hakone (1)

Although it’s not actually hidden (or really a “secret” for that matter–except that not many people stop to see it) the shrine sits on the edge of a river where, according to legend, washing your money will make it increase and return to you many times over.

Tonosawa Shrine

Benten–also called Benzaiten–is the Buddhist goddess of everything that flows: music, water, words, time, and speech. The indigenous Japanese Shintō faith worships her as Ichikishima-hime-no-mikoto – and it’s in that form that she is worshipped at Tonosawa’s little shrine.

Tonosawa Shrine Closeup

The guardians are carved from stone, and stand on watch outside the altar, with bright red paint to accentuate their details.

Left guardian

Several statues of frogs also stand in various spots around the shrine.

Toad Statue

I looked for real frogs around the shrine–it’s wet and humid, making it a likely spot for amphibians. While I didn’t find frogs, I did see several ghostly looking crabs near the river. Unfortunately, they moved too fast to photograph, but I’ll try to get an image the next time I visit Hakone.

Have you visited this little shrine? Would you, if you visit Hakone?

Tune in Wednesday for more as the journey through Hakone continues! 



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Introducing … Hakone!

During my research trip last autumn, I spent several days in Hakone, a hot spring resort in the Fuji Five Lakes region of Japan. Hakone is famous for many things, including views of Mount Fuji, onsen (hot spring baths),  and the ability to enjoy “sightseeing through different modes of transportation”–including trains, cable cars, ropeways, and a ride on a pirate ship. 

I went to hike a preserved section of the Tokaidō–once, a famous travel road connecting Kyoto with Edo–but added a few extra days to the trip to ensure I had time to enjoy Hakone, too. (Spoiler alert: I loved it so much I returned with my son two months ago, and plan to go back as often as possible, every time I’m in Japan.)

The trip to Hakone really begins in Odawara (a major station about an hour southwest of Tokyo), where travelers transfer to the Odakyu Line for a local train to Hakone-Yumoto Station. 

HY Train

 (Travel tip: buy a Hakone Freepass in Odawara. As its name implies, the “freepass” gives the holder free access to all transportation in Hakone–including the bus, train, cable car, ropeway, and pirate ships–for either 2 or 3 days, depending on the length of pass you buy. I saved more than $100 over 3 days by using one, and recommend it highly.)

The trip to Hakone-Yumoto takes about 15 minutes. Like most Japanese trains, the Odakyu Line cars have comfortable, plush seats and large windows. The scenery is lovely – though not nearly as nice as what you’ll see when you actually reach Hakone:

View to Ichinoyu

At Hakone-Yumoto station, I transferred to the Hakone portion of the Hakone Tozan Railway, Japan’s oldest mountain railway (the line from Odawara to Hakone-Yumoto is also technically part of the Hakone Tozan Railway, but the portion that begins in Hakone-Yumoto is the truly special part).

I’d reserved a room at the Tonosawa Ichinoyu Shinkan–a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) just one stop north of Hakone-Yumoto.

Tonosawa Station is tiny, little more than two platforms with covered benches squeezed into a cleft of the mountain.

Trains from Hakone-Yumoto travel through a tunnel to reach the station:

Tonosawa Station (2)

And depart immediately into another, to head farther up the mountain:

Tonosawa Eki Hakone (1)

However, the station also has a surprising secret – which I’ll share with you on Monday!

Have you ever visited Hakone? Where did you stay when you were there?





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